Police officers have been instructed to keep detailed records of wildlife smuggling in an attempt to crack down on the lucrative trade in such items as illegal ivory and medicines containing rhino horn.
The move comes amid growing alarm over the trafficking of products derived from endangered species.
The Independent’s 2013 Elephant Appeal raised more than £500,000 to combat the poaching crisis that was resulting in around 100 elephants being killed every day for their ivory.
Until now animal-related offences have not been separated out in the crime statistics compiled by the 43 police forces in England and Wales.
Critics said the absence of clear data had hampered efforts to tackle the criminal gangs behind trafficking of animal products.
Among the 17 offences to be identified by police is the trade in items produced from endangered species such as elephants, rhinoceroses, tigers, leopards and tortoises. The first detailed figures on the extent of the crime are set to be published in the autumn.
Norman Baker, the Home Office minister, said the moves would force police to take such offences seriously – and enable police and crime commissioners to hold them to account if they failed.
He told The Independent: “This is a major issue for us. Do we want to be the generation that sees the end of the elephant, the tiger, the rhino? What a terrible legacy that would be for generations to come.
“We have a duty to take on the callous individuals who don’t care what they are doing. They are completely immoral.”
He added: “This is just the beginning for how we record and respond to wildlife crime.”
The move, which does not cover Scottish police, was welcomed by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). It said the step would enable police and the public to identify areas which are “hotspots” for the illicit trade.
Simon Pope, the WSPA’s UK director of campaigns and communications, said: “This separate classification for the reporting of wildlife offences is an important first step towards the UK being able to create a true picture of the scale of this exploitative and abhorrent crime.”
He called on the Government to go further and direct police forces to record domestic wildlife offences such as poaching and the persecution of badgers, bats and birds of prey.
At an international conference three months ago in London, attended by representatives of 46 countries, governments pledged to go beyond earlier commitments and support the commercial ban on the international trade in ivory until the survival of elephants is no longer threatened.